Ironman Hawaii Course Preview: The Route to Victory

The Triathlete's World guide to the course of the most famous Ironman race in the world.


Posted: 4 October 2010
by Amy Swan

Other Ironman courses may be tougher than Kona, Hawaii, but here is where
it all started and here is where world champions are crowned.


If watching the coverage of this year's Ironman World Championships has inspired you to try to qualify for next year's event, you're going to want to know something about what you can expect if you succeed. And so we present this guide to the course of the most famous Ironman race in the world.

SWIM

The 3.86K (2.4-mile) swim course in the Pacific Ocean is an elongated rectangle, over 1.6K long and almost 100 metres wide. It starts on the east side of Kailua Pier, heads south to the turnaround vessel and returns to the pier, with athletes swimming in a clockwise direction. The in-water start is approximately 55 metres from the shore and is led off by canoes, boats and, in true Hawaiian style, officials paddling surfboards.

The swim start for the professionals is 15 minutes before the age groupers’ mass start. Don’t forget to draft and, if you’re slower, stick to the sides of the group rather than trying to fight your way through the middle. Competitors aren’t always friendly.

Every morning in the days leading up to the race, Kailua Pier is packed with triathletes heading out for training swims. Don’t miss the chance to check out the course. The sun rises at around 6.15am during race week so make an early start. Whether you’re racing or spectating, it’s a perfect opportunity to spot the pros and soak up the pre-race atmosphere.

The marine life off the islands of Hawaii is stunning – turtles, dolphins and all manner of colourful fish, often in the waters of the swim course. Don’t let them distract you: you’re here for a reason so stay focused on your swim and leave the excited pointing for the diving and snorkelling trips before or after the race.

The water temperature is usually around 26C (79F) so it’s a wetsuit-free swim, and therefore a new experience for many Europeans. Get to grips with swimming without your wetsuit back home (if you can bear it) in the run-up to the race in these warm waters.

While there’s no surf in this section of Hawaiian water there are often currents and swells that will test the strength of your stroke, especially near the turnaround.

The famous Coffees of Hawaii boat is anchored off Kailua Pier every morning in the run-up to the race, serving espressos to swimmers while they bob in the water. It’s a singular experience, one you should not miss – and make sure you look back towards land to take in the spectacular landscape. Follow Coffees of Hawaii on twitter: @CoffeesofHawaii.

Cut-off: The swim cut-off is 2 hours and 20 minutes after the start of the race.

T1

From the swim it’s onto the beach, up some steps and into first transition (T1), which is located on Kailua Pier. T1 is laid out like a triathlete’s dream: row upon row of the latest bikes, primed for the start. But once again, retain your focus – you’re not here for the bike porn. Wait until the race is over.

You cannot fail to be impressed by the 5,000+ volunteers who keep the event running smoothly. In T1, take advantage of the helpers who will smother you in suntan lotion. In the searing Hawaiian heat, you need as much protection as you can get. More than 260 bottles of sunscreen are applied by volunteers during the race.

BIKE

Once out of first transition, the initial loop of the bike course gets you up and rolling and provides a chance to  see your placing in the field  as the racing begins to settle into a groove.

The Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, also known as  the Queen K, takes you past the airport, through Kawaihae and up to the turning point at the small village of Hawi. It’s a wide road through a rolling, otherworldly landscape of lava fields. Look out for the ‘good luck’ messages to competitors written in white stones on the black lava, especially near the airport.

While there will be masses of spectators closer to Kona, the hostile conditions on the Queen K mean there’s usually little support there. This makes it a long and lonely part of the course, mentally and physically challenging. Rumour has it that Ironman legend Dave Scott (right), who won the race six times in the 1980s, used to turbo for five hours at a time while staring at a wall  to inure himself to the monotony. He denies it.

After Hawi the pros really put the hammer down. In the last 20 miles of the bike, make sure you take on the right nutrition: lots of fluid and gels will ensure you’re ready for the run. The stable body position on the bike means nutrition absorption is easier and better than when you are running.

In the most extreme conditions, competitors can face  winds of up to 60mph on the brutal 112-mile cycle course. Temperatures on the cycle section can exceed a punishing 38C (100F) thanks to  heat reflected from the volcanic surface.

Cut-off: The bike cut-off is 10 hours and 30 minutes after the start of the race.

T2

T2 – 184K (114.4 miles) down, only a marathon to go. If the heat hasn’t hit you already, it will now. As noted above, the heat is usually ferocious in the lava fields and humidity often hovers around the 90 per cent mark. Slather on yet more sunscreen, pull on your trainers, grab a drink and get going for the final push.


In 2009 the competitor with the fastest transitions was Kiwi Terenzo Bozzone, who blasted through T1 in 1:43 and T2 in 1:57. He finished in 11th place, crossing the line in 8:34:45. At the other end of the scale, Penn Henderson clocked the slowest T2, a leisurely 57:37 (and he still finished in a respectable 12:37:05). Did he stop for a nap?

RUN

Locals line the route along the majority of Ali’i Drive and helpfully spray water over competitors with hoses and sprinklers. You will need it. This is usually the last chance for anything approaching cool running – once you leave Ali’i Drive there’s no shade on the course.

After the loop, turning right onto Palani off the Kuakini Highway, the road is steep and plunders whatever energy you have left. This is usually where you’ll see a large number of competitors crack – you’ll see a lot of walkers. Take strength from the masses of spectators. Only 16 miles to go.

Then you’re back into the oven of the Queen K, with heat from above and below, thanks to the steaming lava. Here in particular, take advantage of the aid stations, which are positioned every mile along the course.

You’ll often hear references to the The Energy Lab section of the course. This is the site of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority at Keahole Point, near the airport on the Queen K. It’s the location of an ocean science and technology park, a major Hawaiian landmark and a milestone on both
the bike and run.

In these final stages, you’ll see more and more competitors slow to a walk as the long day and relentless heat take their toll. Some competitors are likely to have miscalculated their nutrition and bonked, while others may have switched to the run-walk method, which takes some guts to try but  at least it makes crossing the finish line more likely.

Once you turn right onto Ali’i Drive the finish line will be in sight. Soak up the atmosphere as thousands of spectators line the route to cheer you on in the final metres. Cross the line, close to Kailua Pier where you started, and  receive your medal and a Hawaiian lei. You’re a World Championship Ironman and you always will be.

FINISH

Get an immediate cool-down from volunteers who’ll pour freezing water and ice over you as you cross the line.

After being doused by volunteers head to the athlete recovery area behind the finish line in the grounds
of King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel to refuel, rehydrate and meet up with your family and friends. Enjoy a much-earned massage and have your photo taken on the finishers’ podium.

Return to the final part of the run course to cheer on those still racing. Any pain you feel will be dwarfed by the sense of achievement that will make your body and mind sing. As they say in Ironman circles, anything is possible.


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